Sir Stanley Matthews wasn't one of the most decorated players in football. One FA Cup Winner's medal, way back in 1953, was the only major silverware that he won over the course of his career. With this knowledge, it is natural for one to question whether this man stands a chance against the greats of football.
However, if you were to take a look at his Wikipedia page, you would notice a Ballon d'Or and a CBE next to his name. Surely, there was more to him than meets the eye. With that, we take a look one of football's most iconic stories.
The humble beginnings
Sir Stanley Matthews was born on the first day of February in 1915, in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. Matthews' father Jack was a local boxer whose wish was for his son to follow in his footsteps, and take up boxing professionally. However, young Stanley had a different passion altogether, one that he had discovered at a fairly tender age.
He attended Hanley's Wellington Road School, where he played kick-about football games with his fellow pupils. He developed his dribbling in the process, and on top of that, he spent countless hours practising the same in his backyard, where he had placed kitchen chairs which he would dribble around.
Sir Stanley Matthews was born to play the beautiful game, and he wouldn't have it in any other way. Despite the best attempts of his father Jack to sway his mind into opting to pursue boxing over football, the young Matthews stood firm.
His footballing journey began when he was selected to play for English Schoolboys, the governing body of schools' football in England. Although he initially played as a center-back, the coach at English Schoolboys instructed him to play as a right-winger instead, noticing his ability to take on defenders. A straight-forward move at the time, it would prove to be vital many years down the line.
In 1929, Matthews represented England Schoolboys against Wales in front of a 20,000-odd strong crowd. His potential to be one for the ages was there for everyone to see. Understandably, this potential did not pass unnoticed, as top clubs from all around England including Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa chased the wonder-kid.
First Spell with Stoke City
Ultimately, it was Matthews' hometown club Stoke City who persuaded his father to allow the fifteen-year old talent to join their reserve team. Ironically, Matthews had actually grown up supporting Stoke's local rivals Port Vale.
It didn't take him long to light the stage up, as his unparalleled dribbling skills sent a frenzy among fans and media alike, who were convinced that young the Matthews was destined to reach insurmountable heights. He was developing new methods to take on defenders, things the English had never seen before.
Fittingly, he was awarded with his first professional contract on his 17th birthday. He was earning £5 a week, the maximum permissible wage back then. At only 17, he was good enough to warrant that fee.
His first season as a member of the first team was a leaning experience. He realised how much more physical the football was - opponents could play dirty and get away with it, without much ado. Matthews was determined not to let the physicality prove to be a roadblock in his road to greatness.
Whilst his friends and peers played golf in the pre-season, Matthews trained with unmatched intensity. He was picked for fifteen games the following season (1932-33), and helped his team secure the second division title. He also scored his first senior goal against local rivals and the club he grew up rooting for - Port Vale, in a 3-1 win.
The following season, he featured nearly twice as much, playing 29 games. Stoke finished 12th, and confirmed at least another season's stay in the top-flight. The next season, he continued to improve his game, and led Stoke to better their league position from the previous season's 12th to a respectable 10th. He was slowly starting to develop into the player he was expected to be, and the England National Team call-up that followed was timely.
In the 1935-36 season, Matthews and Stoke went one step further to secure a fourth place finish in the league - the highest in the club's history. However, all wasn't as rosy as it sounds, as the following two seasons proved to be tumultuous for both the club and the player. Disagreement over payment of bonuses led to the souring of Matthews' relationship with the club, and rumours were circulating about resentment in the dressing room against Matthews for his England success.
Matthews wanted out of the chaos, but his transfer request was rejected. Around 3,000 supporters organised a meeting to request him to stay as well, upon which he accepted to carry on with his Stoke career. After a dip in their league position, Stoke rose back up to 7th place in the 1938-39 season. Matthews was only 24, and raring to break into his prime. Unfortunately, professional league football wasn't to be played again till he was 30. The world was at war, again.
Matthews joined the Royal Air Force, and soon rose to the rank of Corporal. He continued to play unofficial games for a number of teams, including Stoke, Blackpool, and Scottish clubs like Morton and Rangers. He also represented Arsenal against Dynamo Moscow and played 29 games for England. However, none of these 29 representations earned him official England 'caps'. Matthews lost his father in 1945, who demanded two things from his son on his death-bed: for his mother to be taken care of, and for him to win the FA Cup.
Upon resumption of the league for the 1946-47 season, Matthews seemed eager to add directness to his game. He ended up majorly contributing to 30 of his team's 41 goals. However, their attempt at winning the league fell just two points short of the eventual champions - Liverpool.
FA Cup and Ballon d'Or wins
In the coming seasons, Matthews' already sour relationship with the manager worsened, and he handed in a second transfer request, which was accepted. Matthews chose Blackpool as his next destination. Their manager, Joe Smith, provided him with full freedom to express himself and play his natural game. Smith did have a question for Matthews, though, which now, given how things turned out, sounds ridiculous to say the least!
"You're 32, do you think you can make it for another couple of years?"
Blackpool reached the FA Cup final in 1948. Matthews was one step away from making his father's wish come true. Sadly, Matt Busby's Manchester United prevailed 4-2 in a match where Blackpool took the lead twice. It just wasn't to be for the Seasiders.
A couple more disappointing seasons followed, but they continued to attract large crowds owing to the attacking brand of football they had on display week in, week out. They bounced back in 1950-51, where they finished third in the league and reached another FA Cup final. Although they began the finals as favourites to triumph over Newcastle, silverware eluded Matthews again.
Injuries bugged him thereafter, and at 37, there were major doubts regarding his ability to play at the top level. A transfer back to Stoke was agreed to by all parties, until Blackpool manager Joe Smith intervened and made Matthews believe that a successful FA Cup run was still possible.
At 38, despite struggling with muscle injuries, Matthews managed to help his team reach another FA Cup final in 1953, against Bolton Wanderers. However, with Bolton 3-1 up and 35 minutes to go, Blackpool were staring at defeat once again. Matthews would have none of it, and went on to play the game of his life, bamboozling defenders at will and helping his team snatch a last-gasp 4-3 victory.
To this date, that match is heralded as the greatest FA Cup final of all time, and it is famously referred to as the "Matthews Final". However, Matthews never accepted that nickname, and majorly credited his teammate Stan Mortensen, who scored a hat-trick. Regardless of who was responsible for the victory, aged 38, Matthews had finally lived a lifelong dream.
That performance was a sign of things to come, as Matthews continued to age like fine wine. The media were ready to write him off after the poor performance he put on once in a while, but Matthews continued to amaze not just England, but football fans all around the globe.
At 41, Stanley Matthews edged Alfredo di Stefano to win the inaugural Ballon d'Or award in 1956. He continued to ply his trade for Blackpool, although injuries often restricted his time on the pitch. At the start of the 1961-62 season, Matthews was no longer a guaranteed started, and bid farewell to Blackpool at the end of the season, playing his final game at Highbury against Arsenal.
Return to Stoke
He returned to Stoke to play second division football, and the Stoke faithful received him with open arms. Building the oldest team in the league, Stoke earned promotion as champions to the first division in 1962-63.
Matthews was voted the Football Writer's Association Player of the Year, aged 48. He remains the oldest recipient of the same, and his record is unlikely to be broken. On 1st January 1965, Matthews was knighted for his services to football whilst still playing professionally - the first instance of the same.
He played his final league game on the 6th of February, 1965. A testimonial match was organised for Matthews on the 26th of April that year, where a Stan's XI consisting of football league players faced an International XI. The latter won 6-4, and Ferenc Puskás and Lev Yashin carried Matthews on their shoulder at full-time.
"Stanley Matthews taught us the way football should be played" - Pele
The 50-year-old retired as one of the sport's first international icons. Sadly, he died on 23 February 2000, aged 85, after falling ill while on holiday in Spain.
Great personalities in football have held him in high regard and spoken fondly of him.
One of the greatest footballers of all time, Pele, was inspired by Matthews:
"Stanley Matthews taught us the way football should be played."
His speed, technique and dribbling ability was nearly impossible to defend, and the same was acknowledged by the great Franz Beckenbauer:
"Almost no one in the game could stop him."
Sir Stanley Matthews ended with nearly 700 appearances for Stoke and Blackpool, scoring 71 goals. He was also capped over 50 times for England, and scored 11 goals for the Three Lions. He never managed to win an English first-division title, nor was he laden with trophies of other kinds.
Perhaps, Sir Stanley Matthews was the first example of the fact that silverware doesn't necessarily define a footballer, or the career he has had. "The Wizard of the Dribble" was a rare individual, whose impeccable talent was almost inversely proportional to the number of accolades he managed to bag.
Even today, his name is synonymous with English football, and he is credited with teaching an entire generation how football should be played. In many ways, Sir Stanley Matthews was well ahead of his time.
Published 10 May 2020, 11:57 IST